Let's Make Robots!

Some considerations about Letsmakerobots.com

Ok, let's start saying that i love this site and i'd like to see it grow. So here comes the things i don't like or that could imho made better. They have mostly to do with the use of drupal and its "flatting" of contents. IE You can't easily say whether you're looking at a robot page, at a forum page, at a blog entry etc, and i find it quite discomfortable.

Another thing is the forum: while it's kind of working and all, i do miss the specific features of phpBB or other well known bullettin software, for example the "view post since your last visit", or "mark all topic read" or things like that. Also, a better visual distinction between new and old post would be better.. It looks like that for leveraging the different tipology of content, some specific features have been left behind.

Another part that need some rework is the Components section: while it would be nice to have a database with all components, the current state looks like just some stuff thrown in, without precise information, just something like "i tried it, it works good". This is not useful, what is useful are real values: the dimensions, the voltage and amperage, the reading ranges, etc. Personal experiences are for the comments. Also, there are both "component specific" article (like L293D, or the Pololu Micro Dual Serial Motor Controller) and abstract articels (like Accelerometers and Voltage Regulators). What should stay in the database and what not ? In my opinion, it should be a database of specific components. But then again there are many of them, and it requires a lot of work to write such a database. Is it useful to build such a database when the info are already avaiable around?

About the Tips and walkthroughs that's ok, but the tutorials get somewhat mixed with other articles on the site and there's not a nice categorization, such as

Tutorials and tips:
 - Electronic
   - Controller
   - Sensors
 - Robotic
   - Wheels
   - Gearmotors
 - Mechanics


The "robot" section on the other hand is great. It's nice to have a space to upload our own robots, and the site gives a good support for editing (text, video, pictures..)! The only problem i noticed is that a great percentage of uploaded robots are remix of the "start here" tutorial robot. While there's nothing wrong with it (i already posted a lot of them), it may obscure other more complex and interesting robots, and in general will keep the average tech-level of the site low. Indeed it somehow looks like a very amateur site, while it could be something that appeal to both amateurs and more advanced hobbist. I don't know what can be done about it. I surely don't want to hide this cool feature in any way. Maybe we could divide robots like "beginner, medium, advanced", and maybe show the last entries of each in the main page.. This will grant that some interestign stuff is always there. Also, a better distinction between work in progress and completed robot would be nice.

Finally the blog entries: they're somewhat shadowed.. they only appear in the small box on the main page, and once faded out they become virtually unread. They're presented in the wrong way when clicking "blogs", that is: as a list of most recent articles. I'd rather view something like a list of blogs, eventually ordered by most active.
Also they're too unpersonal.. I think a blog should be a personal space, with our own custom look and templates and feels etc.. LMR blogs are too flat. And there are already blog services all around the internet. What if instead of hosting the blog pages, we give a tool to register one own robotics-related blog in the site, so that it can aggregate all rss and display the most recent posts?

As the last thing: maybe we could have some benefit with a wiki ? I know the site is already very wiki-oriented, but maybe some explicit mediawiki-like section with complete freedom could be nice.

Just my two cents :) Sorry for the long post!

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Good thoughts, and I have to say that I agree with most of what you say. I too am not a very big fan of Drupal, though it is impressive how much functionality it provides without requiring the user to learn HTML or programming. But I agree, it loses something in that generalization.

I have experience running both phpBB message boards and MediaWiki wikis, and both would be doable if we had free access to install new software on the server. I agree that they're more capable than Drupal's approximations, and particularly the message board would be a good addition. Right now, most people tend to interact via the shoutbox, which is both limiting and ephemeral -- once it scrolls off the bottom, everyone else misses out on that conversation. I think a message board would provide a satisfying alternative, and conversation would migrate there. The shoutbox is actually one of the heaviest loads on the server (every single visitor's browser automatically reloading the shoutbox every 5 seconds), so if we could migrate from that to a proper message board, I think it'd be a big improvement all around.

We're working on migrating the site to a new server where we'll have more complete access to install new software, etc. At that point, we'll have to see what the other admins think, but I at least would put in my vote for setting up a phpBB message board and possibly a Wiki if people think that'd be useful too.

I agree with the idea of classifying robots by technical complexity or whatever. I think that should just be a flag the submitter can select, rather than having some moderator classify the robots. Sure, leaving it in the hands of the submitters leaves it open to the possibility of some beginner deciding that his line follower was SO HARD TO BUILD that it's an Advanced robot. And I'm sure that would happen. But I like the way that this site is generally pretty 'anarchistic', where everyone has pretty much the same status. Users post and maintain their own content, without feeling like the 'upper class' of moderators are coming in and correcting them, managing their posts, etc. So I think it's better to maintain that feeling and deal with the occasional user mis-categorizing their robot.

The other points you gave have merit too, but that's all I have time to comment on right now :)


I agree 100% with you both.

I hope this will do for a general answer: http://letsmakerobots.com/node/2009

Yes, I think you're right. Let's start a mutiny.

Wait a minute. One thing we've overlooked: the site WORKS! For some bizarre reason, people come here. And then they come back again. I feel that this is because of the simplicity of it. I totally think we need some of the features afforded by a BB, but it's possible we're in a minority. A lot of our users (including Frits) are more arty than science-y and I think they like thegrasshopper-esque approach Frits has weaned them on.

Sure, all the info (with the exception of the bot themselves) is already out there on the net, but our little team knows how to answer the questions that robot fans don't know how to ask.

How difficult would it be to migrate the DB over to a BB engine?

depending on schema layout for both, i it can be from easy, to damn nightmare...

Consider the fact that you have to map the table data that may not match the size limits of the new schema that you'll be putting it into.  As long as you have some time deidcated to doing this,it can be done....

BOA; I agree 100% that the site works. And I tell myself that I know why, because I have designed it: The templates are hand written from scratch over several months by a programmer I hired for it, the content types are designed and selected, just as their correlation. Nothing is random. Not all is as I'd wish - not at all, but what is done is done on purpose. I tell you all this because:

I will keep the spirit, and simplicity etc on the site, no worries - I may be offering anarchy here, but it is actually strictly controlled like the fusion in a nuclear plant :) Example: Everyone can enter, but note how there is no spam on the site, and no lame people .. somehow crap just disappears, things are not getting out of balance.. I take care of it all the time.

And I plan to take care that we keep the explosion controlled in development we will be doing together as well, so all we get is more good energy and not a melt down, I hope :) So just go ahead and fire it up, it will not get out of hands, we need all the good input and help we can to get it going!

That's what I'm saying. Experienced BB'ers might look at this site and think it's a lot of crap and starved of features, BUT, the arty ones like it. Importantly, the arty ones seem to be making MORE robots than us science-y ones!!!

We are by a mile the most diverse and probably the most visited robot site on the web. Let's not piss in Frits' garden...

On the other hand, Frits has given his blessing for a bit of controlled mixing up of things!